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GALLAGHER: Sgt. Rice's halted burial remembered 65 years later
The Forgotten War

GALLAGHER: Sgt. Rice's halted burial remembered 65 years later


SOUTH SIOUX CITY | When Evelyn Rice died 11 years ago, her children planned to bury her next to her parents at the cemetery in Walthill, Nebraska.

"The crematorium broke down," said Jean Rice LaMere, of South Sioux City, the second of three children. "So we waited."

During this wait, LaMere moved her mother's possessions and discovered a letter from Washington, D.C. The letter writer asked if Evelyn sought to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, next to her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class John Rice. Evelyn had filled out the form. She hadn't told her children, though.

John Rice, killed in action while leading troops into battle in Korea, was buried at Arlington on Sept. 5, 1951. The interment, with full military honors, came some 364 days after his death and eight days after his burial in Sioux City's Memorial Park Cemetery was refused because of the cemetery's bylaws that, at the time, restricted burial to Caucasians. Rice, a Winnebago Indian raised on the Winnebago reservation in northeast Nebraska, was known by his Indian name "Kay-La-Che-Manika," or "Walking in the Blue Sky."

News of his halted burial on Aug. 28, 1951 enraged Sioux Cityans, shocked citizens throughout the U.S. and reached the White House, where President Harry S. Truman rushed word to Evelyn Rice that her husband could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with the government paying all expenses.

"The President regrets the unfortunate development regarding the burial of Sergeant John R. Rice," the telegram read. "The Department of the Army will contact you to make all arrangements for interment at Arlington if you wish."

Rice was posthumously thrust into the national spotlight, forever linking Sioux City and the Korean War. Sixty-five years after his burial at Arlington, the Journal begins a series of profiles on local veterans of the Korean War, a three-year conflict dubbed, "The Forgotten War."

It's a misleading moniker, an injustice to the 1.8 million veterans who served there, and the families who sent them off, then prayed for their return. It's an especially sad label for 37,000 families, who, like the Rices, lost a loved one in Korea.

Removed just five years from World War II, these soldiers, Marines and sailors fought bitter cold, oppressive heat, and an unforgiving terrain matched by enemies from North Korea and China hellbent on advancing and capturing a country and her people for its own dark purposes.

In this series, you will meet farmers, educators, engineers and more, young men -- and a woman -- who came of age fighting the spread of Communism and returned home to raise children, build businesses and add to the rich mix of their communities. These veterans will gather to be recognized in a Veterans Day program at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11 at the Betty Strong Encounter Center, which partners with the Journal to present an exhibit, "Korea Remembered," in their honor.

Forgotten? How can Jean LaMere forget a war that claimed her father's life? LaMere was but a 2-year-old toddler playing on the Winnebago farm the day her mother learned of his death. Though she can't recall, and her mother didn't speak of it much, the following year before his burial and the racist act of denying him his ultimate resting place at Memorial Park left an indelible mark.

Wasn't this, after all, the kind of perverse set of values our troops fought to stop at Korea's 38th parallel?

The question brought tears to LaMere's eyes as she examined a portrait of her late father this month. "Our mother lived through all of this and she always said that we, her children, were as good as anyone else," LaMere said.

Fellow soldiers said Sgt. 1st Class John Rice wasn't as good as anyone else, he was a notch better. One of 25,000 Native Americans to serve in World War II and one of 22,000 to fight on the front lines, Rice toiled as an infantry scout for three years. He fought in New Guinea and the Philippines, was wounded and contracted malaria.

He wed Evelyn Rice in 1945 and re-enlisted in the Army two months after his discharge. "He wanted to make the military his career," LaMere said.

He served in Korea with the Eighth Regiment, First Cavalry Division. While leading a squad of riflemen against a fierce enemy assault near the village of Tabu-dong, he was killed by enemy fire on Sept. 6, 1950. For his leadership and valor, Rice was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and other military honors.

His body came home nearly one year later, then traveled with a military escort from Oakland, California, to Winnebago.

Evelyn Rice paid $100 for a lot in the veterans' section of Memorial Park, the closest military burial ground. She planned to be buried next to him.

That changed in the minutes following the graveside service when a cemetery official notified Dalton Boyd, funeral director, of the bylaws at Memorial Park. When the burial plot was sold to Evelyn Rice, it was reported, the salesman didn't inquire about Rice's race. The reason? Evelyn Rice was Caucasian.

Evelyn Rice told the Journal in 1951 she didn't notice the "Caucasian-only" clause in the contract. "When these men are in the Army, they are all equal and the same," she said. "I certainly thought they would be the same after death, especially in the military section of the cemetery."

Rice's body was returned to the funeral home and a 24-hour guard mobilized.

The next day, upon learning the news, President Truman publicly chastised the cemetery. The controversy evoked outrage across the country, tarnishing the city's image. Sioux City leaders quickly denounced the cemetery's decision and the city's mayor traveled to Winnebago to publicly apologize to Rice's family and tribal members during a meeting at the local American Legion post.

Evelyn Rice humbly accepted Truman's offer for a burial at Arlington National Cemetery, one that took place on Sept. 5, 1951. Maj. Gen. Charles B. Palmer, Rice's former commander in Korea, delivered a five-word eulogy: "He was a fine soldier."

Other soldiers wrote his widow, letters left among her possessions, personal notes hailing this "perfect soldier" for his calm under duress, his courage, his loyalty.

Evelyn Rice, who didn't remarry, spoke about the saga later in her life, but not at great length. She was present when a parade was held in Sioux City in John Rice's honor on the 50th anniversary of his funeral service here, on Aug. 28, 2001.

Evelyn Rice died four years later, at age 83. And, thanks to a breakdown at the crematorium, her ashes were laid to rest atop her husband, at Arlington. "It took one year after Mom died for her ashes to be buried at Arlington," LaMere said. "That's ironic, as it was the same for Dad."

Jean LaMere studied a photo of her parents, young and much in love, parents embarking upon a life with daughters Pam and Jean, and baby son, Tim. She placed the photo upon her father's Army uniform and shared a detail the Rice children have treasured for decades.

"Dad was killed in Korea, at Tabu," she said. "Tabu. It was the only perfume our mother would wear. We think she believed it helped keep her close to him."

Marcia Poole, director of The Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center/Betty Strong Encounter Center, contributed to this story.


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